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Seismologists Tried For Manslaughter For Not Predicting Earthquake 154

Posted by Roblimo
from the next-time-the-scientists-might-not-say-anything-at-all dept.
mcgrew writes "From LiveScience: 'Earthquake prediction can be a grave, and faulty science, and in the case of Italian seismologists who are being tried for the manslaughter of the people who died in the 2009 L'Aquila quake, it can have legal consequences.' A group of seven, including six seismologists and a government official, reportedly didn't alert the public ahead of time of the risk of the L'Aquila earthquake, which occurred on April 6 of that year, killing around 300 people, according to the US Geological Survey."
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Seismologists Tried For Manslaughter For Not Predicting Earthquake

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  • More Details (Score:5, Informative)

    by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Friday May 27, 2011 @11:22AM (#36264236) Journal
    Details from the LiveScience article [livescience.com] were lacking, to be nice, and fairly one sided. So I dug up a slightly more reputable article [nature.com] that has these facts:

    Following a committee meeting just a week before the quake, some members of the group assured the public that they were in no danger.

    If this is true, this is decidedly different from telling the public that they don't know whether there is any danger. Saying "I can't predict earthquakes" is fine. Saying "You are in no danger" would probably be interpreted differently than "We have no indications that you are at an elevated risk."

    In the aftermath of the quake, which killed 309 people, many citizens said that these reassurances were the reason they did not take precautionary measures, such as leaving their homes.

    More specifically, the accusation focuses on a statement made at a press conference on 31 March 2009 by Bernardo De Bernardinis, who was then deputy technical head of Italy's Civil Protection Agency and is now president of the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research in Rome. "The scientific community tells me there is no danger," he said, "because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable".

    Hasn't it been established that movement of GPS ground stations (slippage) indicates increased risk of earthquakes [slashdot.org]? That was the basis for claims that the New Madrid fault line is overestimated ... and the above quote employs the exact opposite logic.

    It appears that the crux of this case rests upon "he told me to say" versus "it's not our job to tell the public." But the civil servant who "summed" up the scientist's summary appears to have fallen victim to treating this like a forecasting of the weather. He will probably regret maintaining a neutral report and should have just said "inconclusive" instead of "looks good."

    Vincenzo Vittorini, a physician in L'Aquila whose wife and daughter were killed in the earthquake and who is now president of the local victims' association '309 Martiri' (309 Martyrs), hopes the trial will lead to a thorough investigation into what went wrong in those days. "Nobody here wants to put science in the dock," he says. "We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices".

    He says that the committee had precious information that was not passed on to citizens, for example on which buildings were most likely to collapse in the event of a strong earthquake. Vittorini thinks that those charged are not the only ones to blame, and that further investigations might eventually place greater responsibilities on politicians at the local and national level.

    Indeed, this sounds to me more like a case against Italy's Civil Protection Agency instead of scientists and seismologists. Not that they couldn't predict the quake but general failure to provide earthquake plans and proper materials/handouts/PSAs to the public.

  • Re:More Details (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 27, 2011 @12:13PM (#36264878)

    "Hasn't it been established that movement of GPS ground stations (slippage) indicates increased risk of earthquakes [slashdot.org]?"

    No. Not really. Deformation is ongoing and varies over time and location in tectonically-active areas. Figuring out that a particular motion is a precursor to a major earthquake versus ordinary, smaller-scale earthquakes that happen all the time is extraordinarily difficult, and can usually only be done after the fact. You can notice that there might be an increase in small earthquake frequency and intensity before big ones, but there are many more such increases that peak and nothing happens at all. If this was a reliable way to predict large earthquakes we'd already be doing it. There's a long history of failures in attempts (both big earthquakes not predicted and ones that were but didn't come to pass).

    "[from the article] He says that the committee had precious information that was not passed on to citizens, for example on which buildings were most likely to collapse in the event of a strong earthquake. Vittorini thinks that those charged are not the only ones to blame, and that further investigations might eventually place greater responsibilities on politicians at the local and national level."

    THIS is the problem: an engineering problem. The geologists/seismologists can you what the potential for an earthquake is (a percentage chance per year for a particular magnitude), it's going to be a rough estimate with wide uncertainties depending upon how well instrumented and historically studied the area is, and the geologists/seismologists are going to be able to give the engineers a probabilistic envelope for the typical frequency, amplitude, and duration of ground motion acceleration based on past events. A geologist can also survey ground materials to determine which will amplify, attenuate, or otherwise filter the ground acceleration signal, which will affect any structure built on top. A geologist/seismologist will NOT be able to tell you how the building will respond in those circumstances. That's the job of a structural engineer. If an event is well outside the norm of previously-experienced events in an area, that's what the confidence intervals and engineering safety factors are for. The uncertainty is supposed to be built into the quake model and the structures.

    If this case is about geologists/seismologists not being able to predict an earthquake, then this case is stupid, because as the article and any other geologist/seismologist will tell you, they can't do that for individual events. If this case is about improper seismic risk assessments and a failure of the usual partnership with engineers evaluating the implications of earthquakes for pre-existing and new structures, then it would make some sense. If this case is about PR people not understanding how it works, and misleading the public by statements along the lines of "There is no risk", then that isn't really the fault of the scientists.

    Look, it's Italy. It's a tectonically-active part of the world. There is NO place in Italy without a significant earthquake risk. NONE. To say something like "There is no earthquake risk" would be ridiculous. What I suspect happened is that the scientists said the recent increase in smaller events is no cause for alarm (which is true -- small earthquakes vary up and down in rates all the time with no "big" one following), and then it was presented the wrong way, or people took away the wrong message. It's like telling someone with a beach cottage in Florida that "Just because it was raining and stormy all last week doesn't mean there's any reason to expect you're more likely to be hit by a hurricane this year", and then people suing because their cottage gets flattened the following month -- except that hurricanes are one hell of a lot more predictable than major earthquakes. Furthermore, building a cottage on the beach anywhere in Florida is already putting yourself in harms way. I can't say this often enough: it's the same basic si

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